As I did the previous two times I’ve participated in “Just Teach One,” I incorporated this year’s selection into the survey course I offer every fall, which covers American literature from its beginnings through 1865. This course draws mostly majors who are mostly at the sophomore level, though there are always a handful of upperclassmen who didn’t take it earlier and a few intrepid non-majors who take it to fulfill their general education literature requirement. Like any survey, it sacrifices depth for breadth, aiming to familiarize students with a wide range of authors, texts, and critical problems and thus laying the necessary foundation for more sustained inquiry in upper-level courses. And yet, even though I strive to be as inclusive as possible, I’m always aware of how much I can’t fit within the span of a mere sixteen weeks. I’m also conscious that, in spite of my disclaimers about how the course isn’t and can’t be comprehensive, the texts and authors I do assign risk becoming a de facto canon for my students, many of whom are getting their first real exposure to pre twentieth-century American literature, and at least some of whom won’t take another course focused on any of the periods covered in my survey.
Although adding another text doesn’t solve these problems, I’ve had some success using “Just Teach One” to get my students to think critically about the parameters of literary history in general and the limits of the survey course in particular. More specifically, each of the other times I’ve just taught one, I had my students read the selected text (in fall of 2013, Humanity in Algiers; and, in fall of 2014, St. Herbert) and write a paper in which I asked them to make a case for why that text is interesting or distinctive—i.e., what it adds to our understanding of the literature or culture of the period, and thus why it might merit consideration in a survey course. This time around, I made a couple of changes to the assignment in order to take advantage of the wordpress blog that was created to allow students at different institutions to share their work on Sincerity with each other. I gave my students most of the semester to read the novel on their own, and had them record their evolving impressions about it in a series of four posts on the blog due at various points along the way. I presented my students with a few different options for these blog posts: they could 1) introduce a new idea or interpretive claim about the text, and support that claim through the analysis of concrete textual evidence; 2) build upon another student’s post either by citing additional evidence in support of the original idea or (even better) by analyzing textual evidence that might complicate or nuance that idea; or 3) pose an analytical question about the text, and offer a preliminary answer to this question by analyzing concrete textual evidence. The idea here was to get my students to think like literary critics, to engage in a conversation with a larger community of readers about what a text means and why it matters. Toward the end of the term, they wrote a more formal paper on Sincerity for which they used material from the blog as their secondary sources, and, on the day they turned in those papers in, we spent an entire class period tying all of the threads together as best as we could, discussing not just the novel, but also the process of reading it in installments and engaging in dialogue with others about it online.
I was mostly pleased with the results of this pedagogical experiment. With the more traditional essay I’ve assigned in the past for this course, students will often play it safe, reiterating in their papers whatever it is we discussed in class about a given text and its relevant contexts. By contrast, the Sincerity posts and paper invited my students to explore relatively untrod interpretive territory, to formulate new ideas about a novel that—unlike most of the texts we read for the survey course—hasn’t already been the subject of extensive scholarly commentary. While there was a lot of good back-and-forth on the blog about Sincerity’s strikingly unsentimental depiction of an unhappy marriage—and about whether the novel in general reinforces or challenges gender norms—the online discussion also veered off into other, sometimes surprising directions. I was especially impressed whenever my students and students from other schools took the time to respond to each other, broadening the scope of the conversation well beyond the limits of the individual classroom. This aspect of the blog helped address another issue I sometimes have with the survey course, where I’m never quite sure how much I want my students to engage with secondary literature. On the one hand, simply having them do close readings doesn’t seem adequate, nor does it prepare them for the work they’ll be expected to do in upper-level courses. On the other hand, there’s not a lot of room in my overcrowded course calendar for secondary readings, nor is there a lot of criticism that is accessible to sophomore-level undergraduates. The blog provided an archive of criticism that was accessible to my students, allowing them to practice the basic moves of literary scholarship—making an interpretive claim and situating that claim in productive dialogue with the ideas and perspectives of others. A number of my students said that they especially liked this aspect of the project, and a few pointed out the parallel to the original audience of Sincerity, who read the novel in serial installments and (we might imagine) talked to others about it.
For future iterations of “Just Teach One,” I can see how online collaboration might be expanded to facilitate an even greater degree of interaction. We could develop common assignments or create a digital archive of relevant archival materials; we could record and swap mini-lectures on different interpretive contexts for a given texts; we could encourage students to share research or even co-author papers with students from other universities. All this seems like a lot of work, to be sure, but it’s exciting to imagine some of the possibilities. Speaking of a lot of work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t close here by mentioning Theresa Gaul of TCU and her graduate student Kassia Jackson, who deserve special thanks for creating the wordpress blog. I also appreciate all of the other Just Teach One-ers who posted assignments on the blog. I picked up a lot of good ideas from reading those that I’ll no doubt want to draw on for future assignments of my own. Lastly, thanks as always to Duncan and Ed for making all of this possible. Just Teach One has deepened and enriched my survey course, and has become something I look forward to every fall.